Forget Liberalism, Let’s Redefine Conservatism

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by Graham E. Fuller 

What is it about the US that makes it virtually the only country in the world where a political Left scarcely exists? We have a center Right—the Democratic Party. And we have a far Right—the Republican Party. In fact, just invoking the L-word “Liberal” can inflict quick political death.

Yes, we’re safe from the Left here in America.

Having such a stunted political spectrum is bad enough in itself. Still worse is the utter corruption of the word conservative. US society has allowed the Republican Party to hijack the word, distort it and redefine it to its own ends, against its real meaning.

Isn’t it time for progressives to stop bashing their heads against the “liberalism”wall? Even the Democratic Party machine itself has barred the gates against progressive Democratic candidates.

At this point, we need a rethink. Wouldn’t it make more sense simply to yield up the term Liberal to all its many enemies? Put it in the cold freeze? In a doggedly right-of-center country, it might instead be smarter to seize back the term conservatism out of Republican hands, re-own it, and restore it to its true meaning.

Conservatism has a venerable history. The very word says a lot. It seeks to preserve and conserve fundamental human institutions, values, and lives in a precarious world.

Such as, for example, conserving the planet we live on, its forests, its water, its creatures, its bounty. It’s our only home. In fact, preserving and conserving the earth really is the ultimate conservative agenda. We have been given a stewardship over this unique and precious blue orb in the cosmos upon which all life depends.

Indeed, it’s the Republicans who are False Conservatives. They place the interests of the corporate world, profit and the welfare of a minority above all else. Their agenda is clear: generating ever more corporate business, clearing more land for “development,” installing more robots to make production more efficient—this is a conservative agenda?  Actually it sounds like a very aggressive revolutionary approach to reshaping our entire earthly domicile in economic terms. It risks all in the name of production and profit. What true conservative could buy into that?

What of the preservation of life? Wouldn’t prioritizing the preservation of human life over death represent a true conservative agenda as well? How much good does war do for people actually living it on the ground? Nobody is saying that one should never fight in true self-defense, but in the end, it’s hard to make the case that war has done a lot of good for mosthuman beings involved.

Might one even say that almost any peace that spares human lives is better than almost any war? Might not that be a conservative value? In the US we’re used to thinking about fighting wars over there. We are spared the need to conceive of war at home. So who among us actually ends up better off as a result of war? Our families? Our streets, our infrastructure, our loyalties, our institutions, our civilities, in the violence and anarchy of war? Yet our nation has been at almost non-stop war since the collapse of the USSR—following “conservative” values.

Republicans tend to believe that war is heroic, glorious, “our finest fighting men,” pride of the nation, anything to keep our nation safe, huge budget expenditures at the cost of almost everything else. Here’s what founding father James Madison had to say about it:

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes … known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.… No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

So is it a “conservative value” to arm the nation to the teeth and lead the world in arms sales to others?

“Conservatives”want to “protect freedom” by advocating the greatest and most intrusive national security surveillance state in history?

When it comes to “national security,” how much do our own communities genuinely benefit from US military encirclement of China and Russia—an incredibly costly, provocative, never-ending undertaking that gins up increased international tensions? For that matter, would the US ever tolerate for one second efforts by Russia or China to “encircle the US” militarily? Is it “”conservative”” to “go abroad to seek monsters to slay,”” as John Quincy Adams warned?

And what of the civilian sciences and exploration of space? NASA and non-military scientific research have grown impoverished. Education, surely a prime conservative value, languishes underfunded.

And then there’s the economy. Republicans generally believe that the number one policy goal of the nation is first and foremost  the health of the economy—read the health of our corporations. President Calvin Coolidge before the Great Depression famously said, “The chief business of the American people is business.” Republicans have ever since managed to  persuade faux Democrats to adopt this position. (Remember Bill Clinton—it’s the economy stupid!) But prioritizing the health of the economy gets the priorities wrong: for a genuine conservative the first priority is the health and welfare of our communities and our people.

Now, there is undeniably a relationship between the health of the economy and the general welfare, but they are not one and the same thing at all. Human welfare must be the end goal; a healthy economy, however interpreted, represents the means and says nothing of equitable distribution.) This is another issue that should be denied to the False Conservativism of the Republicans.

Preserving our communities should be among the highest conservative priorities.

But it’s going to be increasingly hard to preserve jobs at home. Robotics above all is seeing to that. And it is more efficient to ship most jobs off to China, Vietnam or Bangladesh. That’s why many creative western thinkers are now seriously examining the concept of a guaranteed national income for all. Once a wildly radical idea maybe, but it’s time is coming. Because capitalism by definition sends jobs to where they can be most cheaply performed—and it’s not in the USA. Sending jobs abroad is not “conservatism.” Keeping people alive, healthy, and engaged —not alienated or resentful—is the most important social task we face.

Remember, that while capitalism is a powerful productive engine it has no direct interest in community welfare. It’s not that capitalism is immoral, it’s just outside capitalism’s functional purview. Capitalism by definition is about maximizing profit; that’s what capitalism does. Yet today most Republicans now enshrine free market capitalism as the Holy Grail over the welfare of the community. They don’t worry about poverty and domestic despair. Or even the need to spread profits if society is to function.

Nor is efficiency a prime conservative value. Human welfare is. If we pay a dollar cents more for a loaf of bread that is largely locally produced, don’t we all gain in the community? France, for example, has always sought to keep some elements of small-scale domestic agriculture alive rather than yielding it all to agro-business. They perceive some absolute social good in preserving this way of life, even if it raises costs. Japan does the same thing on growing (expensive) domestic rice that most Japanese support on social grounds. It’s kind of a tax for local benefit and welfare, to conserve the community. Yes, the benefits of globalization can be real, but they need to be viewed in terms of the welfare of all, and not as an absolute ideological good. What good is a cheaper i-Phone when the rest of our standards of human welfare are dropping?

But where do our budget priorities now lie with most members of both parties in the US? Cutting taxes. Yet what of the huge tax levied upon our families by a US defense budget that is greater than the next seven most powerful nations put together? And going up. Have we become safer in a more stable world as a result?

Healthy communities also reflect a pride and exercise of artistic accomplishment. Is it conservative to dismiss cultural resources such as Public Broadcasting or National endowment for the Arts as economically without value? Or local arts? Do you think the French or the Russians or Canadians don’t place high community and national value on preservation of their national arts—which is unprofitable from a business perspective but central to national pride and cohesiveness?

And what of privatization of public lands? How do Republicans get away with calling that “conservative?” Doesn’t “public” mean for the community? Is there is no longer such a thing as the “public good?”

So let’s maybe give up the “L-word” as a hopeless cause and instead work to restore the real meaning of what conservatism should be. This has been the colossal hoax the Republican Party (and some faux Democrats) have perpetrated upon this nation—utterly twisting and redefining conservatism to their own ends. We must take the word back. It is unconscionable—and incomprehensible— that conservatism today has come to stand for profit, the welfare of the military-security-industrial complex, and the massive corruption of our political order through their “political contributions.” Or that Republicanism should celebrate conservatism by throwing away social safety nets and sowing religious and ethnic fears.

And in the end there just might be some gain for the embattled progressive community in reclaiming the word: it could  do better at the polls.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle). Reprinted, with permission, from, Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.

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One Comment

  1. Just as any applicant to a decent university in the US has to complete a rigorous examination with a very high score to be accepted, any aspiring American politician should be required to sit an exam on political theory, beginning with John Stewart Mill and Edmund Burke, and US political history, from 1900 with emphasis on the two Roosevelts — these latter (with the possible exception of Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act) were the last of the American leaders who did anything truly visionary and humane with respect to a democratic state’s responsibility for the true welfare of the nation it governs.

    A lot has been written and debated about the ignorance of the electorate — or, at least, a big part of it. Indeed, the current situation has been blamed on populist discourse of hate, the ignorance of Trump’s base, and the registered Democrats too stupid or too lazy to show up at the polls. I think we now have more than enough information on all of those, so it’s time to focus on the epidemic of ignorance that has be raging through Congress like a fever and even the White House, beginning with Ronald Reagan, a president who planted in the minds of Americans the idea that in place of government (by the people, of the people, for the people, which had supposedly perished from the earth) there was a problem in need of his solution: downsize it. He then proceeded to “expand the U.S. military budget to a staggering 43% increase over the total expenditure during the height of the Vietnam war. That meant the increase of tens of thousands of troops, more weapons and equipment, not to mention a beefed-up intelligence program.” Then, of course, there was his Star Wars budget.

    A few years later, Grover Norquist put Reagan’s anti-government project into even more colourful terms, namely by suggesting that the solution to government should be “to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” Very funny. This was the beginning of the end of any possibility that the US could be anything more than a giant muscle-bound military machine slaughtering its way to “full spectrum dominance” supported by an arms industry that could be counted upon to keep the One Percent deliriously happy with its Perpetual War Portfolio.

    Politicians and their journalist handmaidens should quit blaming ignorance on the electorate and start looking in the mirror.

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